William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842)

November 29, 2011

Born in Newport, Rhode Island on April 7, 1780, William Ellery Channing was a Unitarian minister and social reformer.

A descendent of some of the most notable New England families (the Cabots, Danas, and Lowells are among several included in his lineage), Channing’s grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Channing reported an unhappy childhood as a result of having cold, stoic parents, yet was a warm child and showed a proclivity towards ministry from a very young age. He was remembered by his schoolteachers as an intelligent, positive student. In 1798 Channing graduated from Harvard, where he was close friends with Justice Joseph Story and George Cabot (Lot #3613 Rosebay Avenue). He was ordained as minister of the Federal Street Congregational Church in Boston on June 1, 1803 and served until his death in 1842.

A major figure in the “Unitarian controversy,” Channing’s faith conflicted with traditional New England Calvinism. Unitarian ministers preached a faith in the goodness of God, the dignity and perfectibility of man, and the freedom of will, whereas Calvinist ministers preached the concept of total depravity, limited atonement, and predestination. Channing’s 1819 “Baltimore sermon,” preached at Jared Sparks’s ordination, presented and promoted his Unitarian views to a national audience. He organized the Berry Street Conference of liberal ministers in 1820; this led to the creation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825.

Channing was partially disabled for most of his life, and in 1822 he traveled to Europe in an attempt to restore his health. When he returned to America, he contributed articles to local media outlets to encourage adult education, and called young American writers to action, urging literary independence from England. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among the eminent writers who acknowledged their debt to Channing.

Channing’s later years saw a devotion to social reform. An abolitionist, he considered slavery an unspeakable evil and pioneered the modern movement against war. He supported Dorothea Dix in her crusade for mental health reform, publicly lauded the work of Susan B. Anthony, and stood up for temperance and worker’s rights.

A statue stands in Channing’s honor in the Boston Public Gardens, bearing the inscription: “He breathed into theology a humane spirit.” His monument at Mount Auburn was designed by his brother-in-law, noted American artist Washington Allston, and carved by Boston monument dealer Alpheus Cary (Lot #485 Willow Avenue).

William Ellery Channing’s grave can be found at Lot #678, Greenbriar Path.

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: William Ellery Channing, 1998. 


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